It’s 3 a.m. on a Saturday in December, and Stela and I are wide awake, frantically grabbing every piece of winter clothing we can find, giggling at the bulkiness of my borrowed snowboard pants, our bodies ballooning with layer after layer of T-shirts, sweaters, and scarves. The low in Yosemite today is 5 degrees.
I’d been wanting to go to Yosemite for months, but the perfect time never arrived–until now. The weather forecast shows a 90% chance of snow. Yosemite in freshly falling snow is supposed to be magical; getting it timed this perfectly may never happen again.
But there is one small problem: Neither of us has any clue what to do in a snowstorm. We’re plagued with fear…how serious is it when it snows in Yosemite? Will the roads shut down? Will we get hypothermia? IS THE SNOW GOING TO KILL US? (My fears tend to spiral quickly into the realm of downright irrational.)
Since this trip was my idea, I feel a special responsibility. I have spent the past day researching the weather, making calls, and bumming winter clothes off of friends. It’s laughable that I, a native Floridian with almost zero snow experience, am in charge of this expedition, but I take my job seriously. I’ve packed extra pairs of everything: scarves, socks, gloves, you name it.
Driving Three Hours to Merced, Running on Zero Hours of Sleep
It is cold, dark, and rainy when Stela and I begin our three-hour drive to Merced, where we’ll meet my friends Megan and Olin and then catch the YARTS bus to Yosemite. I am sleep deprived because I was too excited to fall asleep the night before.
Staying awake is really no problem though because Stela frets about her dad’s worries, which in turn, makes me worry.
“My dad said people are dying because of the snow,” she says.
I picture people grabbing their throats as they choke to death because snowflakes landed on them.
“But it turns out he meant homeless people were dying because of the cold temperatures.”
Stela then goes on to tell me about her aunt’s worries.
“She said we have to watch out for black ice. She said it’s causing a lot of car accidents.”
“Well, there won’t be any black ice,” I assure her as I continue driving along the wet, cold road. To be honest, I’m not sure what black ice is, but I’m pretty sure it probably forms in conditions just like this.
Once again, I feel the weight of responsibility sitting on my shoulders. I’m the one dragging Stela into this. I keep my eyes locked on the road and try to look calm, but deep down, a little bit of panic is setting in.
Riding the YARTS Bus to Yosemite
Duration: From Merced to Yosemite: almost 3 hours
Cost: $25 round-trip
Tips: You have to purchase tickets once you board the bus (no pre-ordering). Pay with cash or card. If you’re headed to Yosemite in the winter time when snowy or icy conditions may exist, I highly recommend taking this bus. It’s so much easier to just sit back and relax while someone else handles the steep climbs and sharp turns on the snowy roads.
When we arrive at the Amtrak station, the sun is just rising, and I haven’t slept in almost 24 hours. Once we board the bus, my pent-up excitement has faded, and I am deliriously tired. The last things I see before drifting into sleep are low, golden hills and silhouettes of cows as the sun rises behind them.
When I awake, I am in a different world altogether. White blankets everything. I blink hard thinking maybe it’s sand, but then I realize it’s snow.
The closer we get to Yosemite, the more white stuff is all around us. Fresh snow piles high on rooftops, windshields, mailboxes–everything. It’s only 7 a.m. The sleepy town hasn’t yet woken up. This snow is perfectly untouched.
Playing in Snow on the Side of the Road
Just before entering the park, the bus driver pulls over to put on snow chains. Everyone else is drowsy and subdued. I am bursting at the seams with excitement and itching to go outside, but I’m afraid of being reprimanded.
“Why don’t you just ask the driver if you can go outside?” Stela asks.
I make my way toward the door–then stop. I peer cautiously to the right to see if the driver sees me.
“What are you doing?” The other passengers ask me, rubbing the sleep from their eyes.
“I want to go outside,” I tell them plaintively.
“Well, go on!” An older man encourages me. “The worst she can do is yell at you.”
Exactly what I’m afraid of.
The passengers are now watching me with expectant eyes. Will she do it? Does she dare?
The bus driver walks toward the door, and I sprint back to my seat. Everyone laughs.
Finally, I work up the courage to ask her, in a small voice, “Can I go outside?”
“For a little bit,” she sighs.
With that, I leap out the door and land ankle deep in the fluffy snow.
“Oh!” I shout to no one in particular. “It’s just like in my DREAMS!”
I skip, jump, and frolic in the fresh powder. The world is my playground, and it is sheer bliss.
I kneel down and stick my bare hands into the softness. The snow is light and fluffy like powder, and when I press it together, it’s spongy like styrofoam. Next I stick my face in it. Then I shove snow in my mouth. I can’t get enough of it; I want to take it in in every way I can.
One by one, the other passengers venture outside the bus, all under the guise of intending to do something else. One man lights a cigarette. The other pretends to just be stretching his legs.
Moments later I catch them grinning as snowflakes land in their outstretched palms. One man forms a snowball and throws it at the other man, who I’m pretty sure is a stranger. They both laugh. Then he makes another snowball and hands it to a child who’s still on the bus. The kid’s eyes grow wide, and he smiles.
This is what I love about snow. It makes everything feel new and, no matter our age, turns us into children.
Arriving in Yosemite & Meeting Grumpy Park Ranger
We pull into the park around 10 a.m., and our first stop is the Visitor Center to get advice from park rangers about what we should do here.
I love park rangers. They’re always brimming with enthusiasm that is borderline Pollyannish. They think their park is the best place on earth, and I appreciate that attitude.
I prance into the Visitor Center and accost the first ranger I see. The words come spilling out of my mouth: “This is our first time in Yosemite, and our first time seeing snow, and I heard there’s this AMAZING natural phenomenon where the ice cracks off the falls, and I was wondering if you knew which trail we should hike, so we can get there, and–”
“Ma’am,” he stops me. “There’s no way we can predict when that will happen.”
“Well, what would you recommend we do?”
He sighs, reaches underneath the counter, and pushes a sheet of paper across the counter top to me. “This is a list of winter activities in Yosemite.”
I’m deflated. Surely I can squeeze some sort of excitement out of him.
“Can you tell me your favorite hikes?”
“We don’t recommend hiking in this weather,” he says flatly.
“Okay…we’ll go ice skating then!”
Another park ranger nearby chimes in, “The skating rink’s closed because of the snow. It’s not exactly priority to clear off the rink when we’ve got roads to plow.”
“Well…we’ll just go play in snow then!”
“Ma’am,” the first park ranger scolds. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I don’t want you to wind up falling in a river and getting hurt.”
I see this is going nowhere, so I march out of the Visitor Center determined to prove him wrong.
Hiking the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail
[box icon=”none”]Length: 1.1 mile loop trail
Duration: 30 minutes[/box]
Of course the first thing we do is go hiking. I lead my friends to a trail that’s supposed to take us to the waterfalls (the very ones Mr. Grumpy Ranger said weren’t worth seeing).
As we trudge along the snowy trail, Megan asks, “What if there’s an avalanche?”
I scoff. “There isn’t enough snow for there to be an avalanche.” I actually have no idea how much snow is needed for an avalanche, but I feel it is my duty to comfort my travel buddies.
As it turns out, the falls are almost completely dry during winter. But that doesn’t matter. The winter wonderland we walk through is worth the hike to me.
What’s incredible about freshly-fallen snow is its ability to pile high on even the most precarious of perches. In a spectacular testament to perseverance and patience, one by one, each tiny snowflake alights on a branch, a table, a signpost, and delicately builds upon another snowflake, until you have seemingly impossible formations like this:
Eating Lunch at the Visitor Center
What I ordered: Turkey chili and “hot chocolate.” (I also bummed half a sandwich off of Stela. Thanks, Stela!)
Tips: Bring your own snacks. The sandwiches were pretty good. The hot chocolate, questionable.
Famished from shivering and playing in 20-degree weather, we forage for food. Attached to the Visitor Center is a deli that serves hot sandwiches, soup, and beverages. I opt for the turkey chili and a sugary, watery mess that spewed out of a machine labeled “hot chocolate.” Doesn’t matter how it tastes. It’s hot. I’m cold. No complaints.
Ice Skating in Curry Village
Open mid-November until early March
Cost: $10 for adults, $9.50 for children. Add $4 for skate rentals.
Duration: The ticket buys you a whopping 2.5 hours of skating. I was totally satisfied with just 30 minutes.
Tips: Don’t fall.
By afternoon, park workers have cleared off the Curry Village ice skating rink. Set against the backdrop of Half Dome and the other snow-covered peaks, the rink is thrilling…and slightly dangerous. The dilemma? I’m constantly torn between looking up at the scenery and down at my feet, which causes me to get dizzy and almost face plant a few times.
Visiting the Ansel Adams Gallery
Duration: How long you spend in here depends on two things: 1) How interested you are in art 2) How long it takes to thaw off
The Ansel Adams Gallery was originally on our list because it’s free, and I wanted to feel cultured by looking at famous photography. But to be honest, I end up coming inside only because I need some respite from the freezing cold.
I walk around and pretend to be really interested in the photos, but really I’m just waiting for the feeling to return to my fingers.
Building a Snowman (Sort of)
We have just about an hour before we have to catch the departing YARTS bus.
“We CAN’T leave without building a snowman!” I whine.
Megan and I find a fresh patch of snow and get to work. Ten minutes into it, we realize just how much work this is going to take. We decide to throw a carrot and some sticks into a semi-shaped pile of snow and call it a snowman.
“Nailed it!” Olin jokes when we step back from our “masterpiece.”
Making a Snow Angel
Last but not least, I need to make a snow angel.
As I prepare to fall into the fresh snow beneath me, my friends look at me with pained expressions that seem to say, “That’s probably not a good idea.”
Making a snow angel is kind of like one of those trust exercises where you have to fall backwards into the arms of your teammates, except the snow is my teammate, and it’s a really crappy teammate because it drops me–hard. Beneath the several inches of snow is something I didn’t expect: the ground.
Pain shoots up my neck and shoulders, but I force a smile so as not to worry my friends. (The next day, I will have whiplash-yes, WHIPLASH–from this.)
Proving the Park Ranger Wrong
Around 4 p.m., we end our Yosemite excursion where it all began: the Visitor Center.
Park ranger #2 (the one who told me the ice skating rink was closed), sees me and jokes, “Oh! You survived!”
“YES I DID!” I yell. “And TELL YOUR FRIEND that I didn’t fall into a river, or get hurt, and we went hiking AND saw the waterfalls, and it was wonderful and WE ALL HAD A GREAT TIME.” (I’m very mature, I know.)
He chuckles, then pulls out a map. “When are you leaving?”
“We have to catch the bus in 10 minutes.”
“Oh…” he sighs, feigning sadness. “That’s a shame…you’ll miss out on the best hike the park has to offer.”
I am far too mature to stoop so low as to give in to what is clearly a childish attempt at getting a rise out of me.
Just kidding. I stomp over to the counter and grab at the map in his hands. “WHAT? Where is it?” I demand.
“No, you’re gonna need a good two hours to do it. And you have a bus to catch. Oh well, have a safe ride back!”
Next time, Sassy Park Ranger. Next time.